Therapy Dogs and Animal Assisted Therapy

Boy with autism and a therapy dog
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Animal assisted therapy (AAT) is the use of certified therapy animals as a part of a therapeutic plan. Pet Partners, once known as the Delta Society, has described animal assisted therapy as a "significant part of treatment for many people who are physically, socially, emotionally or cognitively challenged."

Patients in hospitals or nursing homes often benefit from AAT, especially children and the elderly.

While animals such as horses and cats can make excellent therapy animals, dogs are by far the most common type. Perhaps this is because of the unique bond that canines and humans share. Therapy dogs truly make a difference in the lives of the people they meet.

History of Animal-Assisted Therapy

Animals, especially dogs, have been assisting humans since the beginning of recorded history. They have helped us work and provided us with companionship and lifted our spirits. However, it was not until the 20th century that animals were officially recognized for their therapeutic abilities.

In 1976, Elaine Smith founded Therapy Dogs International, the first registry for therapy dogs in the US. One year later, the Delta Foundation (later named Delta Society, now known as Pet Partners) was formed to research the effects that animals have on people’s lives. Today, these two groups, along with many others, help provide therapy animals to people in need of AAT.

How Therapy Dogs Make a Difference

Animal assisted therapy teams consist of a certified therapy animal and a trained handler. Therapy teams visit hospitals, nursing homes, assisted living centers, children's homes and other similar facilities to help lift spirits and facilitate recovery.

Therapy dogs visit with the sick and elderly, sometimes simply sitting by the person's side and patiently being petted.

AAT patients may walk therapy dogs, play with them, feed them or groom them. Some therapy dogs are trained to sit quietly and attentively while children read to them. Many therapy dogs have their own disabilities or limitations and serve as an inspiration to humans with disabilities.

Qualities of an Ideal Therapy Dog

Dogs of any breed, size, or age may be eligible to become therapy dogs. However, not all dogs are cut out for the job. Therapy dog candidates must possess certain traits in order to qualify. Temperament is by far the most important factor. Before even entering an AAT training program, the therapy dog candidate must be friendly and non-aggressive. The dog must get along remarkably well with children, men, women, and other animals. The dog should also be confident, patient, calm, gentle and receptive to training. Socialization and a solid foundation of training are both important for all dogs and puppies. However, these are absolutely essential for a dog to be considered for a therapy program.

Becoming A Therapy Team

Therapy dogs generally work with one dedicated handler. This is often, but not always, the dog's owner. If you want to become a therapy team with your dog, you must both complete a thorough training program.

Then, you must be able to show that your dog can be relaxed, well-behaved, and responsive to you in all kinds of different public environments.